School of Life Sciences


Research shows ivy bees are not to be feared

Ivy bees build nests in the ground during autumn

New research has found the sting of the ivy bee is similar in pain to a stinging nettle and significantly less than a honey bee.

In fact, the bee rarely even attempts to sting people and when it does, it struggles to penetrate thick skin.

The researchers, based in the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex, therefore urge people not to fear the ivy bee, despite the fact its nesting habits can seem alarming.

Francis Ratnieks, Professor of Apiculture, said: “Ivy bees can build huge numbers of nests in the ground in the autumn. If there is a nesting aggregation in a garden there can be hundreds or even thousands of nests in a relatively small area, leading to enormous numbers of bees flying around. But these are mainly males seeking mates and the males cannot even sting as the sting is part of the female reproductive system.

“People see these swarms of bees and often their initial reaction is to think they will get stung, which is simply not the case with the ivy bee.”

The researchers assessed the risk of sting by ivy bees and found it to be very low; during 10 hours of human activity (standing, walking and gardening) in the presence of the bees, they recorded only one sting.

Pain was scored using a modified Starr/Schmidt scale and it was found ivy bee stings were significantly less painful that those of honey bees, with similar scores to a nettle sting. Pain also subsided after only 10 minutes.

Lead author of the research, Gigi Hennessy, said: “Often people panic when they see ivy bee nests in their gardens. I’ve even heard of people pouring boiling water down nest entrances to kill them off. This is so unnecessary. We are seeing pollinator declines at a global scale and here is a bee which is actually managing to do quite well alongside humans and poses such a minor risk to our health and safety. We can all do our bit for nature by not killing them and instead providing a great space for them to nest.”

The ivy bee colonised Britain from Europe and was first found in Dorset in 2001. It is now found across the South of Britain, including here in Falmer.

Ivy is a very common plant that flowers in the autumn and the ivy bee exploits this niche, which is part of the reason for its successful spread across the south of Britain.

‘Stinging risk and sting pain of the ivy bee, Colletes hederae is published in the Journal of Apicultural Research.

Back to news list

By: Jessica Gowers
Last updated: Monday, 9 December 2019